The C Bombs

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Recently I was working with a staff team that wanted to take their marketing to the next level.  We had some great thinkers in the room.  We had some big ideas brewing.  When it came time to start to take those ideas from the white board to the project plan the meeting started to heat up.  People started to squirm.  One side of the room was clearly in one camp.  Another group was just as committed to their big idea.  A couple of stragglers were hanging on to the way it used to be – “more billboards, please.”

As the facilitator, I knew this was the moment of truth.  We were on the verge of a breakthrough, but I could already feel the tension in the room.  I could read their minds: “On No!  We are about to disagree!  This is going to be uncomfortable.  Somebody’s going to get their feelings hurt. There are gong to be losers and winners. That’s not good.”  What I was thinking: “Please, please, please be brave.  It’s fun to hear the passion in each other’s ideas.  It’s fun to disagree.  We can do this, I can help you and I promise no one will lose an eye or need therapy when it’s over.”

So I called a time out and said:  “Let’s go back to why you flew me here and paid me relatively big bucks to lead this session.  You wanted to do something more, something different, something that would get you somewhere beyond where you are. Is that still your objective? “  This was met with a few hesitant nods, but mostly just a lot of doubt.  “Remember?”  More uncomfortable silence.  “Ok, then what is your goal now?”  And then he said it.  The unofficial leader of the group said something so inappropriate and vulgar, I gasped.  I fell back in my chair.  A little vomit came into my mouth and I started to scream, “NOoooooo, to the top of my lungs.”  He dropped not one, but both of the evil “C” bombs right there in front of everyone and didn’t even blush.  He said: “Well, of course we like all these ideas and I think we made some great progress today.  But you know we have to have compromise and we have to have consensus.”

And everyone relaxed.  Even me, in a just-got-punched-in-the-gut kind of way. There’s no turning back after a statement like that.  Get me to the airport as fast as I can get there (without getting a speeding ticket, of course).

But you know how later you think about what you wish you had said?  Well I’m going to say it now.  Not because it can help those bozos, but because it’s something that might help you in the future. And I’ll feel better just getting it off my chest.

When I was a Y director, the big controversy was over the temperature of the pool water.  It never gets too cold for lap swimmers, and it’s never too warm for seniors.  So you have one pool and you are the leader that wants to make everyone happy.  What do you do?  You compromise.  You boil a few thousand gallons of water and fill the pool half way.  Then take some ice water and pour it in on top.  Then everyone will be happy!  You’re so wise, kind of a Solomon moment for you.  Except no one is happy.  If you only have one pool, then you have to pick one market to make happy and then communicate to the other side why you’re going this way.  Then you do it and move on and ignore the noise.

Consensus and compromise are not goals.  If you’re going in to meetings with that as a goal then you are an awful leader.  If you’re going in to a meeting as a participant hoping that’s your leader’s goal, then you are worthless.  Fire yourself.  Go be a massage therapist or something where you always get to make people feel better.  But get yourself out of a leadership role for anything:  your church, your school, your family, your community,  your work.

A really hot idea and a really cold idea mixed together just make a really tepid solution to any problem.  You already have enough lukewarm in your organization. What you need now are some scalding hot and wake-you-up ice cold, bold new directions.  And you need people that have the, um, you know, to go in those bold new directions. Who’s in?

That’s what I wish I had said.

Lori Swann
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